Friday, January 31, 2014

Academic Shenanigans

Some years ago, I was at a major institution, and a graduate student told me about shenanigans in the research of someone in her lab. I never got the details, but there was some sort of scientific misconduct. And it was not clear what she could do, since she was a vulnerable graduate student. Some very distinguished scientists were involved, although the misconducting person was a postdoc in the lab. Eventually, some years later, a distinguished historian wrote a book about the events. Something fishy was going on. There was not only smoke, but also fire.

At the same time, I was told by a junior faculty member that the head of her research center wanted to divert research funds from her research grant to pay for administrative expenses (normally covered by indirects). The expenses were real, but were not built into the research grant. The head of the lab was very distinguished, but also had a national reputation for not being so kosher.  Nothing could be done, except to deny the head of the research center their request. The junior faculty member knew then and there they would have to leave. [In some fields, the head of a lab puts their names on all the papers, assumes that grants received by more juniors are in effect their own, etc.] So she went out and found another position at a good institutios, and then followed my usual counsel. Living well is the best revenge. Everyone knew that the head of the lab was disreputable, but the head was sufficiently powerful to get away with it until he had to leave one institution for another that was more willing to tolerate his shenanigans. The junior faculty member thrived at the new institutions, has a strong national reputation, and has been able to avoid being tarred by the head's nonsense.

In each case, you find that the institution will protect its most senior people if they are valuable and their misconduct is not too egregious. Junior people are best off getting out of the way, moving on, and realizing that chairs, deans, and provosts are less concerned with fairness than with maintaining their assets, however problematic they are.

Arrogance has no limits, so a distinguished senior faculty member or a dean, may well hire someone who would otherwise seem less than qualified. Perhaps a family friend, a lover, a payoff for other favors. Deans and chairs are quite willing to allow such anti-ringers to cause all sorts of trouble, make hell for colleagues, since they are insulated. There's nothing much to do, but stay away and the anti-ringer will self-destruct.

I use the word shenanigans rather than ethical lapses or corruption or illegality because these violations are about power and arrogance. Even if they were Ok by the rules, they would be awful.

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